Editor’s note: This article was originally published on RACER.com on July 14, 2016, on the 20th anniversary of Jeff Krosnoff’s passing.
In hindsight, it was unusual for me to take a business meeting on a Sunday morning away from a race weekend but on the morning of July 14, 1996, I found myself driving south from my home Laguna Beach to a resort on Mission Bay in San Diego.
The meeting was special because Nick Craw, who was then serving as the president and CEO of the Sports Car Club of America, had asked me to help him interview a promising new candidate for the job of running SCCA’s amateur activities. As is still the case today, I was publishing SportsCar magazine for the SCCA and they were my biggest client. More importantly, Nick was also one of my closest friends and a mentor, so it was easy to say yes. The candidate was Dennis Dean, and he was about to retire from a distinguished career in the US Navy, where he’d most recently been commanding a guided missile cruiser. I was intrigued since I was raised in a US Navy family and spent my early years growing up in San Diego. It was a beautiful summer day, and the interview with Dennis and the lunch than followed was memorable. But the remainder of that sunny summer day was life-changing.
Sometime around 2 p.m. I said goodbye to Nick and Dennis and headed to my car for the one-hour drive back to Laguna. I couldn’t wait to get on my mobile and connect with someone who could fill me in on how the CART race turned out in Toronto. My buddy Jeff Krosnoff was racing there, and based on what he’d shared with me earlier in the week during one of his frequent visits to RACER HQ, there was good reason to expect that his Toyota-powered PPI Reynard would finally have the horsepower to be competitive.
A blast of searing heat greeted me as I opened the door to my BMW 325i. I quickly grabbed my Motorola Star-Tac flip phone, and saw that there was a message. It came from Jim Hancock, who led the branding and marketing for No Fear, the action sports apparel company that was also one was one of Jeff’s endorsement deals. In a strained voice, he said, “Paul, call me about Jeff’s accident, it is bad.” I dialed Jim immediately and my mind went numb as he told me what he’d seen and learned from those onsite in the final moments of Jeff’s amazing life. I sat there in stunned silence as the enormity overwhelmed me.
I now think of my life as divided in to two eras: Before 7.14.96 and after 7.14.96.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I fell out of love with racing for the first time in my life on that awful afternoon that Jeff and Gary Avrin died. The days that followed were a painful blur as I was confronted first-hand with the unrelenting emotional agony that Tracy Krosnoff was going through. My respect for her loving and brave spirit only grew as I watched her deal with the unthinkable. The members of Jeff’s PPI team, led by Cal Wells, also have my lasting respect for how they coped with laying their beloved teammate to rest while caring for his family and then carrying on to race again, as Jeff would have wished them to do.
I am also not ashamed to admit that I still miss Jeff dearly and I think of him every day. He was a total goof, and I mean that in the best possible way. Few could make me laugh like Jeff could. He had a mischievous, childlike way of processing life’s journey, but he was also as serious as a ninja when it came to driving and developing a racing car. I remain in awe of his remarkable abilities and his unbreakable positive spirit. No matter how daunting the challenges before him, he relentlessly pushed forward while believing in himself and the inevitability of his success.
While Jeff was racing in Japan in Formula Nippon, Group C and Super GT, he would often call me at 3:30 a.m. Pacific time from the alleged “free phone” in the Suzuka Circuit press room after a long day of testing. The call would usually begin with Jeff yelling, “Wake up, you bloody wanker!” Those conversations were special because Jeff didn’t just share what happened at the track that day, but he also talked about what his life was like in Japan and the adventures he had hanging out with his crazy best mates Mauro Martini, the late Roland Ratzenberger and Eddie Irvine. But Jeff always turned the conversation to how much he missed being home with Tracy. That was where his heart really was, so he really wanted to drive in the PPG IndyCar World Series.
Being a racing driver is a lonely and hard existence. As a consequence, I’ve found that racing drivers all too often become insular, cynical and selfish. Despite all my years in the sport, by choice, I only had a few drivers become true close friends. Jeff was all that and more to me. He was the younger brother I never had, and I loved everything about him — even the nylon parachute pants he once wore. He sincerely cared about me and what was going on in my life and, most importantly, in the lives of so many he met and worked with along the way.
As strange as it now seems, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that Jeff could die in a race car. I mistakenly believed he was invincible because he had so much focus, skill, stamina and positivity. Two months earlier, on the evening following Scott Brayton’s death in practice at Indy, we had a long heart-to-heart phone conversation where Jeff told me what he saw next for himself after his driving career. He also shared his desire to start a family with Tracy. Like everything Jeff put his heart and mind to, I believed it would all soon come to pass, but sadly it was not to be.
It has been 9131 days since I last spoke to Jeff but it seems like only yesterday when he and Tracy were standing in my office at RACER’s HQ. The lasting memory of that day is of laughter and excitement. They were looking forward to the upcoming weekend in Toronto. I recall that Jeff checked out the helmet display case in RACER’s lobby to make sure the helmet he wore at Le Mans in 1994 when he and his pals Martini and Irvine came so close to winning for Toyota was still placed above the other helmets in the case.
9131 days later, it still is.